They are lured by the sharp, rhythmic hammering of maple on cowhide. It echoes through this quiet High Point, N.C., neighborhood every time Wil Myers steps into the batting cage he built in 2007 with Scott Davis, then his coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy. When Myers gets down to work in Davis's backyard, the curious show up to see the majestic stroke that launched 37 home runs last season in Double and Triple A—a total no 21-year-old in the high minors has surpassed in nearly half a century.
Last Friday evening neighbors and friends, their faces frozen in awe in the twilight chill, watched as Myers obliterated one ball after another off a tee. Robert Whitehorne, who lives next door, was one of them. "Lots of guys will use this cage, but I always know when Wil is in here because the sound is so different," Whitehorne, 59, says. "I never saw Mickey Mantle play in person, but I imagine the sound of his bat hitting the ball was just like Wil's."
"If I had this batting cage in the big league city where Wil was playing," says Davis, who has coached at High Point's Wesleyan Christian for 10 years and won a state title with Myers in 2008, "I could charge $5 per person and make $10,000 a night. It's always an amazing show."
Myers's bat has made him one of the top prospects in the game and—after the Royals rather stunningly made it known last month that they would listen to offers for their best young power hitter—one of the most-discussed players of the off-season. On Dec. 9, Kansas City sent Myers and three other prospects (pitchers Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi and third baseman Patrick Leonard) to the Rays for righthanders Wade Davis and James Shields.
For the last two seasons, the Royals have had one of the most admired collections of minor league talent in the game. Progress at the major league level has been disappointing, however; arms have been especially slow to develop. So Kansas City made the curious decision to part with BASEBALL AMERICA's 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, a 6'3" 205-pound outfielder who hit .314 with a .987 OPS in 134 games at Double and Triple A and reminds many scouts of a young Dale Murphy, another catcher converted to outfielder. (To take the comp one step further, take another look at the photos on the previous page.) "Wil has a chance to hit in the middle of a major league lineup for a long time," says Andrew Friedman, the Rays' general manager. "He's a prospect who has a lot of confidence in himself, which helps."
Myers is likely to begin the 2013 season at Triple A, but he could be in the Rays' lineup by May or June. There are edges to be smoothed: He's still learning to play the outfield—he only moved from behind the plate in 2011—and he struck out 140 times in 591 plate appearances last season. But ... "Every night Wil would do something that would make you say 'Wow,'" says Odorizzi, Myers's roommate in Triple A. "At the plate he can go off at any time, and he's getting close to becoming an elite outfielder. He doesn't overthink anything, which is good for a hitter, and his confidence was always high last year. The game just comes natural to him."
To hear Eric and Pam Myers tell it, the signs first revealed themselves when their oldest boy was three. On a winter day Eric put a plastic bat in Wil's hand and tossed a plastic ball in his direction. Eric, who works in landscaping and never made it past JV baseball in high school, expected his son to try to block the ball. Instead Wil, like Bamm-Bamm on The Flintstones, took a full swing with his club and sent the ball smashing into a lamp. "That was the end of us playing that little game inside," Eric says.
At age five Myers joined a T-ball team, playing shortstop. He was the only kid who could throw the ball across the field to first base, but when he did the first basemen ran from it like it was an incoming UFO. "Wil," the coach yelled, "you have to roll the ball to first base. Your arm is too strong." Eric Myers, standing next to the field, smiled proudly.
Myers was a twiggy 5'5", 145-pound freshman at Wesleyan Christian when he hit .530 and was named all-state at third base. After his sophomore season he was offered a scholarship by South Carolina coach Ray Tanner (acting on the advice of Davis and one of the Gamecocks' coaches), which Myers accepted at the start of his junior year. For fun during practice, Myers started taking grounders at shortstop and would throw the ball between his legs to first base. "All the local scouts knew that by the time Wil was a junior he was our best player at every position," says Davis, who notes that Myers consistently pushed 90 mph on the radar gun when he was on the mound.
During a game in his junior year Myers, who was behind the plate, missed a signal from the bench calling for a pickoff play at first base. The opposing batter hit a double on the pitch that was never supposed to be thrown, and Wesleyan lost. The next morning at six, Davis met his team in the Wesleyan gym. "I'm going to shoot 20 three-pointers," the coach said. "If I hit 10, you guys pick one person to shoot. If he doesn't hit as many as me, you're running." Davis then connected on 12 of 20 shots.